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She had been stripped of everything: her past, her name, her friends, and in return given... „A throne?”

Cirilla – nowadays she used this name even in her private thoughts – looked at the Emperor. Emhyr var Emreis, Deithwen Addan yn Carn aep Morvudd didn't bother to hide his interest. He had long understood that this girl before him, taught so well by Countess Liddertal, was something much more that he'd thought her to be during their first brief meeting. The Emperor knew quite well that it was impossible to simply raise somebody from the gutter and teach him or her all the rules. Without a core of steel, a great deal of cleverness and a quick mind one could not suddenly become a Northern princess.

„A throne.”

The empty hall was an acoustic nightmare. Every single word resonated off its walls. Surely, no report could be given in whisper here.

After getting to know the Emperor and spending a few dozen hours taking walks together, Cirilla knew that the matter was far from simple. Still… She had been taught to hide any signs of astonishment and most emotion. But… a throne? She came to seek hidden meaning behind every word spoken by the Emperor, his every deed. Their every meeting resembled taking a leap into a deep, cool lake full of sharp stones. You had to be careful: either you hurt you feet or risked drowning.

„Do you see anything else?” His amusement wasn't spiteful, malicious or mocking. She must have surprised him with her naive question; he mustn't have expected such. „In my opinion, there are few things in this world more solid than a heavy and excessively decorated chair.” Cirilla curtsied hurriedly, yet deftly and whispered, lowering her eyes: „Forgive me, if I have disapointed you”.

The look in his eyes? No young maiden could be subject to such and not blush. Cirilla, though, could blush with dignity.

There was no lust or salaciousness in his gaze, but the false princess got a weird sensation between her shoulder blades. A very pleasant one, as though she was stroked with a feather. She suddenly felt strangely weak, unable to fully control her own body. One might say that was true in a sense – after all she had to wear another's face. She never got a chance to dwell on that, though – the exceedingly wise Stella Congreve swiftly put an end to any such thoughts. What she felt now was different and previously unknown.

Never before had she thought the feared Emperor of Nilfgaard irresistible.

Cirilla at once felt ashamed and tried to get rid of all indecent thoughts.

„Just sit down,” Emhyr took her hand and led her closer to the throne. The silver salamander embroidered on his cloak shimmered softly, diverting her attention.

The false princess sat on the very edge of the throne. She saw herself as too unassuming, too common. Blood of kings, magic, plots and conspiracies – such things were not for ones like her. Not for fragile girls with sad green eyes.

She was nothing but a doll bearing a resemblance to the real Cirilla.

„Nice attempt!” the Emperor clapped several times, visibly pleased; the empty hall answered with a profound echo.

So many life-changing decisions have been made here, so much pride, hate and fear was hidden in the hearts of those deemed worthy of an audience. It was daunting to think that she, a common nobody, held the seat lusted after by the most ruthless predators of Nilfgaard. Cirilla never thought about how small her world had become. And if earlier she had at least an illusion of choice, now, as an imitation, she had nothing but this one man upon whose will her very life was dependent. However, sometimes imitations become more real that the originals. The most important thing is to make people believe.

And if anybody could do that, it was him.

„I know my place,” Cirilla answered surprisingly calmly and without trepidation. „I was taught well.”

„That is true. But your place is now by my side and that means you need to learn…” He motioned for her to stand and then sprawled himself carelessly on the throne, legs over the armrest. „...that one should always sit on the throne in such a way as not to leave a shadow of doubt that this is your rightful place. And now try for yourself.”

It seemed to amuse him. But if the emperor himself deigns to have fun, then why should she refrain?

„Please,” he bowed, pointing at the newly vacated throne. Cirilla tried not to think about the absurdity of it all, if only because this was the first time he smiled so sincerely since Brenna. „Please, Your Imperial Majesty,” corrected Cirilla with uncharacteristic bitchiness, for which the Countess would surely box her ears. There is something about it.

Cirilla sat on the throne, her legs over the armrest and thought that even the Emperor sometimes needs to remind himself that he's human first and only after that – a powerful and ruthless ruler, endowed with not only tremendous power, but also a huge responsibility.